12 Big Changes in Afghanistan Strategy

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Several authors are promoting the narrative that President Trump’s new strategic approach to Afghanistan is not much different from that of President Obama.  The reality, however, is quite different.  The new approach—it’s not really a strategy in the military sense of ways, means and ends—marks a watershed in how the U.S. has approached Afghanistan and starts fleshing out an evolving new Trump doctrine of principled realism

To be sure, the objective of the new strategy has not changed.  It remains to ‘stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America,’ including preventing nuclear materials from falling into terrorist hands.  But beyond that, the changes are profound.  Here are twelve fundamental ways how the new ‘strategy’ for Afghanistan is different.

Security First.  In his speech on August 21st, Trump expressed the frustration of the people “over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.” That pretty well captures the U.S. approach to Afghanistan in recent years.  The new strategy puts that notion to bed definitively and reestablishes U.S. security interests as the top strategic priority.

Conditions-Based Action.  One of the most consequential changes in the new strategy is a shift from Obama’s politically-driven time-based approach to the war, to a conditions-based approach.  “Conditions on the ground—not arbitrary timetables—will guide our strategy from now on.”  This is exactly what’s required for success in highly complex irregular warfare campaigns like the one in Afghanistan.      

Close Hold Planning.  For some incomprehensible reason, Obama announced America’s most strategic intentions towards Afghanistan to the world in advance.  He first ordered a troop surge in December 2009, but simultaneously stated that it would last only eighteen months. Then, in June 2011, he openly proclaimed that the U.S. would withdraw all troops by the end of 2014.  The new strategy does just the opposite.  “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.”      

Intensity of Focus.  For the U.S., the war in Afghanistan has largely been a counterterror operation ever since Obama pulled most American troops out.  The new strategy, however, will far more aggressively target terrorist networks.  It will ‘strip terrorists of their territory, cut their funding, expose the false allure of their ideology, dry up recruitment, restrict freedom of movement, maximize sanctions, break their will, and defeat them.’      

This is a counterterrorism strategy, pure and simple.  “We are not nation-building, we are killing terrorists.”  The new strategy will ‘continue support for the Afghan government and Afghan military,‘ while increasing the focus on intelligence, counterterror operations, and building Afghanistan’s special operations forces.    

Gloves Off.  Trump broke with Obama’s policies on the tools and rules of engagement in the war at the start of his administration.  The results have been dramatic, as evidenced by progress in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq.  The new strategy will continue that policy, by lifting restrictions and delegating more authority to field commanders to target terrorist networks and exact retribution.  

A True Regional Approach.   The new strategy finally stops ignoring threats to Afghanistan from its immediate neighbors.  It recognizes that the U.S. must far more actively engage key regional players, especially—for very different reasons—Pakistan and India.  Beyond that, it views Afghanistan in the broader context of both South Asia and the greater Indo-Pacific region.     

Pakistan.  Trump recognizes that Pakistan has for years played the U.S. for a fool—providing succor to terrorist organizations while paying lip service to being a good ally in the AF-PAK theatre of the war.  The highest concentration of designated terrorist organizations in the world thrives in the AF-PAK region, and the new strategy finally proposes to do something about it.  It also focuses on preventing nuclear weapons and materials in Pakistan from coming into the hands of terrorists.  Options include, inter alia, reduced civil and military assistance, greater sanctions against those with ties to terrorist organizations, increased targeting of safe havens in Pakistan, and re-evaluation of Pakistan’s NATO ally status. 

Instruments of Power.  The new strategy continues to embrace the imperative of applying all instruments of American power—diplomatic, economic and military.  However, it makes clear that the era of nation-building is over.  This is a counterterror strategy, and while economics is important to stabilizing Afghanistan, it must be an integral part of achieving the security objective. 

The new strategy avoids specifics, but it strongly suggests that expeditionary economics—economics in direct support of the counterterror strategy—could be far more important to the Afghan war effort than under previous administrations.  Although most third world economic development is now funded by private sector investment and internal resources, traditional economic assistance is still critical in countries like Afghanistan.  In light of this, new USAID Administrator Mark Green would be wise to build USAID’s expeditionary economics capability and position the agency to lead this element of the Afghan war campaign.               

India.  Building our strategic alliance with India vis-à-vis Afghanistan has both security and economic dimensions, and moving it to the front burner of the new strategy is a bold move.   In 2011 the Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan described to me the long history of Indian support there, especially in economic development.  The most consequential benchmark of this was the completion of India’s Salma Dam in 2016, in spite of long-running sabotage efforts in which Pakistan was allegedly complicit.  The India gambit, however, is not without risk

Governance.  A fundamental reflection of the evolving Trump doctrine of principled realism, and a major break from the past is the new strategy’s approach to governance.  “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image…We are not asking others to change their way of life.” 

Specific to Afghanistan, Trump stated that “we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society.”  How this will manifest in practice remains to be seen, but it strongly suggests a re-evaluation of U.S. democracy and governance work in Afghanistan, and hopefully, portends a new emphasis on the devolution of authority from the central to provincial and local governments. 

Afghan Accountability.  Previous administrations have paid lip service to requiring accountability by the Afghan government, but the new strategy flatly conditionalizes it.  “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress.  However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.  Our patience is not unlimited.”

Fight to Win.  Finally, this is not the maintenance strategy of either George Bush or Barack Obama.  This is a fight-to-win strategy.  “From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

After eight long years, a Commander-in-Chief is back in the Oval Office. 

Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer.  He worked 29 years for USAID (1983-2012), on the ground in 49 countries, including in conflict states in Africa, Asia, Latin America, eastern Europe, and the Middle East.  Goodson was USAID Chief of Staff in Afghanistan from 2006-2007, and Director of Development at ISAF HQ under General David Petraeus and General John Allen from 2010-2012.  The opinions in this article are his alone.

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